The Public Interest

SYNOPSIS: Hard-right Republicans are putting anti-government ideology before our safety because they never took Econ 101

I've identified a government agency that, by the usual criteria, should be a prime target for downsizing maybe even abolition.

Some would argue for leaving much of this agency's function to private initiative. And there is no question that the agency's costs would be reduced if its work were outsourced to private companies, which wouldn't have to obey strict rules on hiring and firing workers. In fact, many of the agency's employees are paid considerably more than people with equivalent qualifications in the private sector.

What agency am I describing? The New York City Fire Department.

Why does New York need a fire department? It is, or should be, obvious why we can't leave fire protection up to individual building owners: a fire that starts in my building can spread to yours.

It may be less obvious why New York shouldn't hire private companies to do its firefighting. The basic answer is that the city can't write a contract to cover all eventualities, and so a private firm would always have an incentive to pinch pennies at the expense of public safety. And that's just not acceptable when the stakes are so high, and in particular when what we need are proud public servants, prepared to do whatever it takes to protect us people like New York's heroic firefighters rather than employees who feel that they are paid as little as possible by a company focused on the bottom line.

In short, there are some things that governments must do. Which brings us to the issue of the moment: airport security.

Study after study has urged the federalization of airport security, for pretty much the same reasons city governments take responsibility for firefighting. Maybe we don't expect airport security personnel to put their lives on the line, but we do place our lives in their hands. To that list of reasons has been added another: the need to share sensitive information about potential terrorists. Did recent events finally persuade the doubters?

Not a chance. Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, put it this way: "To me as a conservative, I look at a problem and ask, Is this a federal function?"

Think about that for a minute. Terrorists board planes in Boston, and use those planes to kill thousands of innocent people in New York and Mr. Barr still can't see why airport security is a federal function? What would convince him that a federal role is warranted? One suspects that if the U.S. Army didn't already exist, he would oppose its creation maybe he would argue that state militias, assisted by a few independent contractors (that is, companies of mercenaries) could do the job.

And Mr. Barr is by no means exceptional in his views. Congressional Republican leaders have declared themselves dead set against any proposal to federalize airport security, on the grounds that it would create a new federal bureaucracy they have even denounced federalization as "socialism." And they have reportedly told the Bush administration that they would prefer no airport security bill to one that creates any new federal functions.

The story here is bigger than airport security. What's now clear, in case you had any doubts, is that America's hard right is simply fanatical there is literally nothing that will persuade these people to accept the need for increased federal spending. And we're not talking about some isolated fringe; we're talking about the men who control the Congressional Republican Party and seem, once again, to be in control of the White House.

For the Bush administration, after flirting with moderation in the weeks following the terrorist attack, seems in the last few days to have returned to its conviction that the hard right which is relentless, and bears grudges must always be deferred to, even in times of national crisis.

At some level, I have to admit, I don't get it. I can understand why people might oppose anything that smacks of income redistribution, even though I disagree. But how can you be opposed in principle to a program whose sole purpose is to protect the public and restore confidence?

Whatever the explanation, the dispute over airport security leaves no doubt about one thing: The right's fanatical distrust of government is the central fact of American politics, even in a time of terror.

Originally published in The New York Times, 10.10.01